Velvet Tango Room
Uncover the Mysteries of CLE's Legendary Cocktail Lounge
By Lexi Hotchkiss
Situated in a working-class neighborhood squeezed between two gentrified Cleveland communities teeming with tight-jeaned hipsters, scraggly artist types, suburban adventurers and even a smattering of those from the upper echelon, sits the legendary Velvet Tango Room.
To call this speakeasy both famous and enigmatic might seem contradictory. But, we’re here to assure you that the mystery of the entire operation is truly its calling card.
During the day, VTR is just a non-descript brick building with an industrial garage door concealing the windows. You wouldn’t give it a second look.
Even at night, you’d only be able to locate this diamond in the rough by the small, red sign that buzzes above the front window. But, it’s when the sun sets that this shadowy, little sanctuary comes alive with arguably one of the best experiences in Cleveland’s nightlife.
The VTR will singlehandedly change everything you ever thought you knew about cocktails. Promise.
Put away your notions of cocktails comprised of super sweet elixirs and faux-flavored vodkas frothing with corn syrup and sodium benzoates. You won’t find 22-ounce low-calorie beers or florescent green margaritas in fishbowls. And, thank goodness for that.
The VTR is home to handcrafted cocktails – made the old-fashioned way and with the highest-quality ingredients and top-shelf liquors available. And, that’s not lip service.
Chef Michael Symon loves the VTR’s India Lime Fizz. TV host Anthony Bourdain fell in love with their Negroni. And, food author Michael Ruhlman calls the lounge, “The Best Bar in the World.”
On the sizable menu, you’ll uncover 80 different kinds of cocktails ranging from a properly made Manhattan to a house-created Ramos Gin Fizz. In fact, about 30 of the drinks offered on VTR’s menu are creations from the staff themselves.
Admittedly, the cocktails are on the pricier side – about $18 each. But, you absolutely pay for what you get.
Each drink is made one at a time. They’re hand-shaken by bartenders who’ve been meticulously schooled in the historical significance and background behind each recipe.
VTR makes its own ingredients prepped right on the spot and measured to exact specifications. In fact, it’s not unusual to spot the bartenders emulsifying egg whites and using laboratory-style droppers.
They make their own bitters, fortified wines and even an oh-so-zesty ginger ale. For things they can’t make, they buy the best – including their cocktail cherries imported from Italy. And, after that, they use only the best, top-shelf liquors.
Even the ice cubes receive the establishment’s commitment to superiority. While most standard ice cubes are stored at around 26 degrees, VTR’s perfectly shaped 1.25-square-inch cubes are frozen to 30 degrees below zero. Why? Chillier cubes mean drinks stay cold longer and become less diluted over time. That means you’ve got plenty of time to sip and savor these celestial beverages.
And, while the culinary community is seeing a surge in bars attempting to recreate Prohibition-style cocktails in undercover locations, VTR’s been ahead of the game for decades.
Owner Paulius Navytis – who himself has a clandestine backstory – opened this classy cocktail lounge in 1996. Rumor has it used to be an actual speakeasy back in the day.
The lounge’s small, intimate interior that’s draped in scarlet tones, dim lighting and avant-garde artwork heighten the aura of mystery. In the back of the lounge, you’ll find a piano that’s usually pounding out jazz notes most nights.
But, what really makes this place feel truly underground is uncovering what few outsiders know – the back room. With a door hidden in the back of the lounge, the latter half of the building contains a beautiful private room with a fireplace and back patio boasting a panoramic view of the city.
Want to check it this hidden space? Reservations are required. And, you must know the secret password.
If you’re thinking of visiting, leave your casual attire at home. VTR asks its patrons to refrain from wearing shorts, t-shirts or anything “disreputable.” And, gentlemen please remove your hats.
Clevelanders: What’s your must-order drink at VTR? Share with our visitors below: